Researchers point to 1,300 apps which circumnavigate Android’s opt-in

Research from a coalition of professors has suggested Android location permissions mean little, as more than 1,300 apps have developed ways and means around the Google protections.

A team of researchers from the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) has been working to identify short-comings of the data privacy protections offered users through Android permissions and the outcome might worry a few. Through the use of side and covert channels, 1,300 popular applications around the world extracted sensitive information on the user, including location, irrelevant of the permissions sought or given to the app.

The team has informed Google of the oversight, which will be addressed in the up-coming Android Q release, receiving a ‘bug bounty’ for their efforts.

“In the US, privacy practices are governed by the ’notice and consent’ framework: companies can give notice to consumers about their privacy practices (often in the form of a privacy policy), and consumers can consent to those practices by using the company’s services,” the research paper states.

This framework is a relatively simple one to understand. Firstly, app providers provide ‘notice’ to inform the user and provide transparency, while ‘consent’ is provided to ensure both parties have entered into the digital contract with open eyes.

“That apps can and do circumvent the notice and consent framework is further evidence of the framework’s failure. In practical terms, though, these app behaviours may directly lead to privacy violations because they are likely to defy consumers’ expectations.”

What is worth noting is while this sounds incredibly nefarious, it is no-where near the majority. Most applications and app providers act in accordance with the rules and consumer expectations, assuming they have read the detailed terms and conditions. This is a small percentage of the apps which are installed en-mass, but it is certainly an oversight worth drawing attention to.

Looking at the depth and breadth of the study, it is pretty comprehensive. Using a Google Play Store scraper, the team downloaded the most popular apps for each category; in total, more than 88,000 apps were downloaded due to the long-tail of popularity. To cover all bases however, the scraper also kept an eye on app updates, meaning 252,864 different versions of 88,113 Android apps were analysed during the study.

The behaviour of each of these apps were measured at the kernel, Android-framework, and network traffic levels, reaching scale using a tool called Android Automator Monkey. All of the OS-execution logs and network traffic was stored in a database for offline analysis.

Now onto how these apps developers can circumnavigate the protections put in place by Google. For ‘side channels’, the developer has discovered a path to a resource which is outside the security perimeters, perhaps due to a mistake during design stages or a flaw in applying the design. With ‘covert channels’ these are more nefarious.

“A covert channel is a more deliberate and intentional effort between two cooperating entities so that one with access to some data provides it to the other entity without access to

the data in violation of the security mechanism,” the paper states. “As an example, someone could execute an algorithm that alternates between high and low CPU load to pass a binary message to another party observing the CPU load.”

Ultimately this is further evidence the light-touch regulatory environment which has governed the technology industry over the last few years can no-longer be allowed to persist. The technology industry has protested and quietly lobbied against any material regulatory or legislative changes, though the bad apples are spoiling the harvest for everyone else.

As it stands, under Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act, such activities would be deemed as non-compliant, and we suspect the European Commission would have something to say with its GDPR stick as well. There are protections in place, though it seems there are elements of the technology industry who consider these more guidelines than rules.

Wholesale changes should be expected in the regulatory environment and it seems there is little which can be done to prevent them. These politicians might be chasing PR points as various elections loom on the horizon, but the evolution of rules in this segment should be considered a necessity nowadays.

There have simply been too many scandals, too much abuse of grey areas and too numerous examples of oversight (or negligence, whichever you choose) to continue on this path. Of course, there are negative consequences to increased regulation, but the right to privacy is too important a principle for rule-makers to ignore; the technology industry has consistently shown it does not respect these values therefore will have to be forced to do so.

This will be an incredibly difficult equation to balance however. The technology industry is leading the growth statistics for many economies around the world, but changes are needed to protect consumer rights.

What can Western businesses learn from China’s digital innovators?

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this article Angus Ward, CEO, Digital Platform Solutions, BearingPoint//Beyond, takes a look at some of the ways in which China is more innovative than the West.

Over the past five years, China and its internet-born businesses have become a globally recognised force for digital innovation. This year, China’s retail market is set to become the largest in the world, exceeding sales in that of the United States and topping $6 trillion in 2020. Last year, it also had 186 unicorns (i.e.: a privately held start-up company valued at over $1 billion), with a combined valuation of more than USD $736 billion.

So, what’s the secret? What is China’s trajectory as a digital superpower and how far beyond Asia does it extend?

Consumers in Asia are voracious consumers of technology. They’re happy to switch to a new digital service (preferably mobile) if it offers a more convenient solution to a problem. They will concede on data privacy as a price for that convenience. That’s why Asia is a hot bed for innovation with digital players adopting a fail-fast mentality – rapidly taking an idea, launching a product to test the market to see if it flies and then rapidly building.

Through this approach, digital lifestyle app WeChat has grown from a simple messaging platform into an ecosystem of solutions for just about every customer problem – from mobile payments and e-commerce even to transport.

Western companies have a lot to learn from many of the Chinese digital heavyweights. Until recently, these firms were relatively unknown outside China, but this is no longer the case. With the launch of 5G in the UK, new smartphone models from the likes of Oppo and OnePlus are the first handsets to hit the market. US brands are nowhere in sight currently. Huawei is seen by many as a market leader in 5G technology and communications service providers (CSP) like China Mobile have set up European bases from which to expand. This suggests that these Chinese companies are innovative, ambitious and are ready to take the west by storm.

So, what can western players learn from their digital rivals from the east?

Eyes on the prize

For every western tech giant, there is a Chinese equivalent. Given China’s population, it’s on a scale that is pretty similar to the west. In the past 18 months, some of the best-known western technology giants have experienced a breach of trust with customers stemming from their lack of transparency into how the giant tech player actually use – and misuse – customer data. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal are an example. The entire episode has left customers both questioning the integrity of the technology companies they’ve come to rely on for much of their online digital interactions but also it has weakened the bonds tying them to their customers.

While Facebook and its fellow FAANG companies face criticism over data privacy, the likes of Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent – known as the BAT companies – go from strength to strength in China. Thanks to investment and other support from the Chinese Government, Baidu dominates online search in China: Tencent is the country’s biggest gaming firm and is also behind the WeChat messaging and payments app: and Alibaba has used its success in China’s e-ecommerce market to invest billions in Artificial Intelligence (AI). With China’s plans to build a USD $1 trillion AI industry by 2030, the country is on track to overtake the US as the world’s leader in use of this technology.

And it’s not just in AI where China wants to claim the top spot. The country’s “Made in China 2025” strategic plan aims to move the country away from large-scale manufacturing and transition into high value product and services. China is also striving to take the lead in robotics, IT and clean energy, among other sectors.

Undoubtedly the real winners of 4G were the FAANG companies who dominated in handsets, social media, internet search, advertising revenues, content streaming and e-Commerce alongside gaming. But in the race to 5G, it’s China now ready to claim a material share of global revenues. With Government sponsored focus on the new technologies like AI and robotics, and a massive home market of tech savvy consumers with a voracious appetite, Chinese digital players will be much faster at innovating the new applications that will power technology adoption such as for 5G

Without as many areas of interest, and lacking the same levels of capital, customer base and support of national governments behind them, it’s difficult to see how Western players will enjoy the same success as Chinese firms. But while they can’t draw on the same resources as their Chinese peers, there is no reason why Western firms cannot adopt the same approach.

There is no “I” in team

Chinese companies’ willingness to work closely with global partners has played a significant part in the success of its tech start-ups. China’s decision to invest heavily in the tech sector, both at home and abroad, means that it is slowly but surely working its way up the value-added ladder. Western companies can learn much from this collaborative approach in order to innovate and better compete.

In sectors like e-commerce and the Internet, Chinese firms create ecosystems that drive innovation because of their size and also the advantages and benefits they offer to third-party partners, in terms of access to new markets.

For example, Chinese ride-hailing app DiDi outperformed its rival Uber in China on everything from marketing to speed to market, before finally acquiring Uber’s China assets. DiDi regularly introduces new features and services from its partner ecosystem, such as sending a driver for your car when you’ve had too much to drink: and an SOS feature to improve customer safety.

Partner ecosystems help to innovate new ideas, expand offerings, increase reach and grow revenue. An effective partner ecosystem solves customer problems through the exchange of ideas and combining contrasting capabilities to create new more functional, multi-faceted and compelling solutions. Nevertheless, ecosystems are complex to manage and so must always be underpinned by a digital business platforms to automate operational processes to bring governance, efficiency and control but also to secure and share the benefits across the parties. This is why both FAANG and BAT are also digital business platform companies.

According to a May 2018 study by consulting firm BearingPoint, 60 percent of Communication Service Providers (CSPs) expect partner ecosystems to drive cost-effective innovation, 59 percent expect ecosystems to help them remain competitive, 51 percent believe ecosystems will help them improve customer experience and 48 percent believe that ecosystems will create direct relationships with customers. This picture was replicated across almost every other industry covered by the survey from automotive to financial services.

The reality is that very few innovations – whether it’s an entirely new service or improving an existing one – are created solely in-house anymore. For CSPs to thrive in the expanding, fast-moving and hugely competitive digital market, cultivating and actively participating in a partner ecosystem is now essential.

 

Angus WardAngus is the CEO of BearingPoint’s digital platform solutions arm, BearingPoint//Beyond, appointed in September 2017. Angus brings 30 years of consulting and solutions experience to his role, supporting organisations across multiple industries in shaping strategies and adopting platform-based business and operating models with differentiating partner ecosystems.

Facebook moves to distance itself from Huawei

Social media giant Facebook is blocking the preinstallation of all its apps on Huawei phones according to a report.

Reuters got the exclusive, but seems to actually have official confirmation from Facebook rather than the ‘people familiar with the matter’ that are so common these days. The company told Reuters that it won’t be allowing the preinstallation of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram on Huawei phones.

The move doesn’t apparently extend to stopping people installing the apps themselves or somehow trying to prevent their use if they do, which would have set an interesting precedent. There’s also no mention of geographical parameters, implying Facebook has gone for a global ban just to make sure it doesn’t upset the US government. A person familiar with the matter was finally dug up to add weight to the sense that this is a global ban.

This just the latest metastasis of the heat the US has been laying on Huawei, superficially over concerns about security and industrial espionage, but more deeply as a proxy in the broader geopolitical dispute between the US and China. Any company that’s keen to stay on the right side of US authorities is now under pressure to ostracise Huawei and it would be surprising if other US tech companies didn’t follow suit.

Can the Ark carry Huawei through the smartphone OS chaos?

Huawei registered “Ark OS” at the European trademark office, likely to be the name of its in-house operating system to replace Android for its future smartphones.

It emerged that Huawei has just registered a couple of trade marks with the European Union Intellectual Property Office. These include “Huawei Ark OS”, “Huawei Ark”, and “Huawei Ark Compiler”. It looks that “Ark” could be an overarching brand that covers both the OS and the compiler. It is possible that this would be the name of choice by Huawei for its in-house operating system to replace Android, as was reported earlier. Huawei declined Telecoms.com’s request for comment.

All the three trademarks filed belong to two classes on the “Nice Classification” of goods and services: Class 9 under “goods”, which the applicant explained specifically refers to “compiler software; operating systems for electronic devices”; and Class 42 under “services”, which the application specified includes “design and development of compiler software and operating systems for electronic devices; design and development of mobile phone applications featuring compiler software; Software as a Service (Saas) featuring compiler software.” The applications are “under examination” by the EU office.

Separately, the trademark office of China displayed that Huawei had filed applications for “Huawei Hongmeng” as the name of its operating system. The application was made in May 2018 and was published for opposition on 14 May 2019. In the Chinese myths, “Hongmeng” refers to the chaos before the world was created.

As we commented earlier, developing its own operating system is not the hardest thing to do. A Chinese media outlet reported that the OS was developed on top of Linux, the same kernel as Android, but with optimisation from the Huawei team. The more difficult part is to rally app developers around the platform. If the estimate is correct that Ark is the name of Huawei’s own mobile, Huawei is also providing its compiler to make porting apps to its own OS as easy as possible. Compilers are a kind of software language “translator” so that apps written in one language (e.g. Unix) can be ported to a platform based on another language (e.g. Linux). How much app developers will be motivated to carry out the porting will be a big question mark.

Constrained by time and budget, most apps developed for the Android platform, notorious for the fragmentation of the device specs, are often only tested on the top 20 or 30 best-selling models before they are submitted for publication (e.g. in the Play Store). That is why if a consumer is not using one of those best-selling models, she may find certain apps not rendering properly. Using compilers to port the apps to another platform, despite that it is based on a similar kernel, will be more complex and add additional cost. Both Windows Phone and Tizen, among other attempts, failed to dent the iOS – Android duopoly because there was not enough developer enthusiasm. Additionally, this will not solve the problem that the new platform may not have access to Google’s core apps: Maps, Gmail, YouTube, etc.

So, a safe bet would be that some Ark / Hongmeng based smartphones will be launched, if only for publicity purposes. Huawei will most likely sponsor the development of some apps, as Microsoft and Samsung did with their pet platforms. But its success will be limited, and its relevance minimal outside China. We may recall that a handful of Tizen smartphones were launched, to show that the platform, and the investment, actually delivered something, despite that all market indications were pointing to its failure.

Amazon’s vigilante division Ring moves into crime reporting

Internet retail giant Amazon is making a big push into the neighbourhood watch world and now it even wants to report on local crime itself.

This is what is indicated by a recent Amazon job listing, which is looking for a News Managing Editor, who ‘will work on an exciting new opportunity within Ring to manage a team of news editors who deliver breaking crime news alerts to our neighbors.’ Ring, which makes connected doorbells with mounted video cameras, was acquired by Amazon for around a billion bucks last year.

Why would a smart doorbell outfit want to get into crime reporting? Good question, the answer for which seems to be found in the Neighbors by Ring app. This app essentially creates a local social network through which virtual curtain-twitchers can share footage of an undesirable types they’ve spotted lurking around their property through their sentient doorbells.

The idea is clearly an attempt to bring the concept of neighbourhood watch into the connected era, which is fine on the surface. After all, who wouldn’t want to know if there are dodgy people in their area? But as we’ve seen with regular social media, this does have the potential to create a self-reinforcing loop, with almost anything being potentially identifiable as a threat. And then there are the privacy and legal implications of sharing an image taken of someone without their permission and flagging them as a likely criminal.

Rather than seeking to minimise the possibility of this app whipping paranoid communities into a fervour of vigilantism, Amazon seems to think even more crime reporting is needed and is prepared to invest in it, hence this appointment. According to the job spec this person needs to have ‘a knack for engaging storytelling that packs a punch’.

The Neighbors by Ring app page paints a picture of a network of parochial snitches with the cops on speed dial, an Orwellian dynamic that’s sure to end well. The underlying strategic aim for Amazon seems to be to create as big an installed base of Ring doorbells as possible to drive demand for its nascent in-home delivery service. But it may inadvertently end up driving demand for handguns, snarling guard-dogs and panic rooms in the process.

 

Apple is facing complaints from developers for removing competing apps

Apps that help users control screen time have been removed or been demanded to curtail their features after Apple rolled out similar features.

Many app makers have claimed that their parental control and screen time alert apps have either been removed by Apple or have been asked to change the features, shortly after Apple rolled out similar features on iOS, reported The New York Times. 11 out of the 17 most downloaded apps of this category have been taken down, according to the research by the app analytics firm Sensor Tower and the NYT.

Apple included screen time control tools when iOS 12 was unveiled at the WWDC event in June last year, integrated in the Settings menu when the new OS was officially launched. They enabled parents to control how much time their kids can spend on iPhones and iPads, as well as alert users the time they spend on their iOS devices. But they are not as feature rich as some specialised 3rd party apps, the developers told the NYT. They were also not terribly robust. Only a few days after the new iOS was released to the public, many kids already found ways to bypass the control, according to the parents who shared their experiences on Reddit.

Apple’s official response claimed that these apps were removed to help “protect our children from technologies that could be used to violate their privacy and security.” Its spokesperson also denied that the apps were removed for competition reasons, saying, “we treat all apps the same, including those that compete with our own services.”

However, both the timing and the reasons given by Apple would raise some eyebrows. While its defence of limiting the device management features for enterprise use is plausible, as was detailed in the response to MacRumor by Phil Schiller, Apple’s SVP for Worldwide Marketing, some other key features that have been in place for years and have been repeatedly approved by Apple are being asked to be removed, some developers told the newspaper. For example, these apps support device level blocking of certain content while Apple’s tool only blocks content inside the Safari browser.

At least three of the app developers, Kidslox, Qustodio, and Kaspersky Lab have filed complaints at the EU’s competition commission.

It is less likely that Apple purges the competing apps for the revenue. On one hand, Apple does not directly get revenue from their screen time apps, it is included in the phone price. On the other hand, by taking down these apps Apple is losing its share of the payment the apps receive (30%). A more plausible reason to trigger the Apple action is these apps can be used cross-platform, which means parents on iPhone can control their kids’ screen time on Android. It is not entirely out of the question that Apple may be using some feeble excuses to lock in as many users as possible.

This is another example that Apple is taking its role as platform and curator of apps too far, and inadvertently lending support to the rhetoric of Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, when she said, without naming Apple, that “either they run the platform or they play in the store. They don’t get to do both at the same time.” These complaints also sound similar to Spotify’s accusation that Apple is being both the referee and a player.

Instagram’s garden is starting to blossom

Just as Facebook’s core platform is beginning to wilt, Instagram is launching an assault on the shopping market built on the walled garden business model which bloomed in by-gone years.

A few people might have scoffed at Facebook handing over $1 billion for Instagram in 2012, but this acquisition is looking to be a clever bit of business. Facebook’s core social media platform, and the business model which underpins it, might be looking a bit jaded after recent attacks, but Instagram is maturing into a very attractive proposition.

Launched today (March 19), users can now purchase products from certain brands in the Instagram app. The team has been working hard to create a marketplace in Instagram over the last 12-18 months, and while the digital advertising model has been paying off, you get the impression the narcissistic tendencies of the app lend itself well to the online shopping arena, especially when it comes to fashion.

“When you tap to view a product from a brand’s shopping post, you’ll see a ‘Checkout on Instagram’ button on the product page,” the team said in a blog post. “Tap it to select from various options such as size or color, then you’ll proceed to payment without leaving Instagram. You’ll only need to enter your name, email, billing information and shipping address the first time you check out.”

For retailers, this could be a very interesting route to potential customers, both old and new. Instagram has proven to be a very effective tool for brands to engage consumers from a brand marketing perspective, but in terms of direct sales, the risk of navigating to another website comes with shopping carts being abandoned. Through in-app purchases, one purchasing hurdle is removed, simplifying the buying process.

Customer information will be stored with Instagram, and while it has been reported the details will not be pre-populated in other Facebook platforms, it would not surprise us if this is in the pipeline. Instagram will receive payments as a percentage of the total spent in-app, though in Facebook’s typically transparent fashion, the waters have been muddied with the team not revealing how much this percentage is.

This is perhaps another perfect example of Facebook’s ability to create a walled garden and charge third-parties to access the cultivated digital customers.

For years, Instagram has been creating an incredibly user-orientated platform, which is simple but very usable and addictive. The only way for users to access these users, to try and pry open wallets, is to strike a deal with Facebook. Facebook is not monetizing its users directly but charging third-parties entry at the gate. This model worked incredibly well for years, putting Facebook is the dominant and influential position it is in today.

The beauty of this plan is that Facebook/Instagram seems to have struck at the right time. Users are becoming increasingly used to using the app as an online catalogue, geared around window shopping not purchases. Another update launched last year, allows users to click on products which might features in posts or stories to see more information. Taking it one step further is a logical step, as long as its not done too aggressively.

While the raw materials are certainly there, the challenge which Instagram will face is not to over commercialise the platform. This is what happened with Facebook’s core social media platform, the focus was less on engagement and more on advertising revenues, resulting in the new generation ignoring and traditional users spending less time on it. If Instagram has learned from prior mistakes, this could be a very interesting proposition, with plenty of room for growth.

That said, learning from mistakes is one thing but keeping under-pressure executives in-line is another. Slowing growth figures have put the Facebook management team under pressure from investors, while scrutiny placed on the traditional business model in ever-increasing. New regulations to remove some of the freedoms granted in the data-sharing economy put profits under threat, and as with any other publicly traded company, they will have to be replenished somehow.

Recent attempts to carve out new revenue streams, such as Watch or Today In, have seemingly not produced the hoped-for bonanzas. In the case of news app Today In, the team is ironically struggling because Facebook and Google effectively destroyed the commercial viability of so many regional news sources. The ‘locusts are complaining there is no more corn’ one Twitter user commented.

Another development which is worth keeping an eye on is the change in management. After 14 years working for Facebook and Instagram, Chief Product Officer Chris Cox announced he was leaving last week. A replacement has not been announced, but the experience of this individual might give some insight as to how aggressively commercial elements of Instagram will appear.

Despite criticisms which might be directed towards Facebook and Instagram, this looks to be an excellent strategy. The team have been cultivating this audience for some time and seem to have created the perfect conditions for growth… just as long as the team learn from previous mistakes.

Europe cools internet monopoly rhetoric

Almost every politician around the world is currently using Silicon Valley as a metaphoric punching bag, but the European Commission will not be drawn into the monopolies debate.

While 2020 Presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has painted a target on the backs on the internet giants, Europe has once again proven it will not be drawn into making such short-sighted and shallow promises. Warren is effectively warming up for the world’s biggest popularity contest, and perhaps hasn’t considered the long-term realities of the dismantling of companies such as Facebook and Google.

Speaking at the South by Southwest festival in Austin (thank you Recode for the transcript), Margrethe Vestager, the European Commissioner for Competition, made a very reasonable and measured statement.

“We’re dealing with private property, businesses that are built and invested in and become successful because of their innovation,” said Vestager.

“So, to break up a company, to break up private property, would be very far-reaching. And you would need to have a very strong case that it would produce better results for consumers in the marketplace than what you could do with sort of more mainstream tools.”

Vestager’s point is simple. Don’t punish a company because of its success. Don’t make rash decisions unless there is evidence the outcome will be better than the status quo. While the fence is proving to be very comfortable, it is a logical place to sit now.

Following up with the European Commission press team, Telecoms.com was told the Commission does not have an official position when it comes to breaking up the internet monopolies. Vestager’s comments are representative of the Commission, and it will evaluate each case on its own merit. Effectively, the breaking up the monopolies is a last resort, and will only be done so in extreme circumstances.

This position is supported by a recent report, put together for HM Treasury in the UK by former Chief Economist to President Obama, Professor Jason Furman. Furman suggests new rules and departments need to be created for digital society, but monopolies, when regulated and governed appropriately, can be good for the progression of products, services and the economy overall.

This will of course be an unpopular opinion, but it makes sense. Sometimes there simply isn’t the wealth to share around. Monopolies are perhaps needed to create efficiencies and economies of scale to ensure progress is made at a suitable pace. However, the right regulatory framework needs to be in place to ensure this dominant position is not abused. A catch-all position should not be welcomed.

This is where the European Commission has been playing a notable role. Numerous times over the last few years, technology giants have been punished for creating and abusing dominant market positions, take Google as an example with Android antitrust violations last June, though it has not gone as far as breaking up these empires. The key here is creating a framework which encourages growth across the board but does not punish success.

Some would argue success in the pursuit of this delicately balanced equation has been incredibly varied, but this should not form the foundation of rash decisions and potential irreversible actions. Big is not necessarily bad.

This is the marquee promise of Senator Elizabeth Warren. In attempting to woo the green-eyed contradictory wannabee capitalists of Middle America, the Presidential contender has promised to split up the internet giants. The complexities and realities of this promise do not seem to have been thoroughly thought out, and it does seem to be a shallow attempt to lure the favour of those who seek fortunes but are unable to congratulate those who have found them.

That said, there are Presidential candidates who are suggesting good ideas. Senator Amy Klobuchar has suggested companies who monetize data through relationships with third-parties should be taxed. This is somewhat of a radical idea, but we do quite like the sound of it.

Firstly, for those companies who say they are collecting data to ‘improve customer experience’, there would be no impact. If the data is being used to enhance current or create new services, and therefore kept in-house, then fair enough. However, if the company is moving data around the digital ecosystem, monetizing personal information, why not place a levy on this type of activity. It might just encourage these companies to be more responsible when more scrutiny is being placed on these transactions.

This is the challenge we are all facing nowadays; the digital economy is a different beast and needs to be tamed using different techniques, regulations and practices. We all know this, but we haven’t actually figured out how to do it.

This is why we kind of like the non-committal, hands-off approach from the European Commission. For an organization which usually likes to run wild with the red-tape, this seems to be a much more sensible approach. Over regulating nowadays could create a patch-work from hell which would only have to be undone. It might seem like a cop-out, but governments should let business be business, while casting a watchful eye over developments.

When no-one really knows how the future is going to evolve, regulation is needed to hold companies accountable and protections are needed to safeguard the consumer. But rash decisions and ridiculous promises are the last thing anyone wants.

Qottab, Quindim or Quesito? Google releases Android Q beta

Every year Google releases a new version of Android, and while it is marginally entertaining to guess what sweetie it will be named after, it also provides a very useful roadmap for the future of mobility.

In controlling roughly 74% of the global mobile Operating System (OS) market share, Android is in a unique position to dictate how the ecosystem develops over the short- and medium-term. This year’s update appears larger and more wide-ranging than previous iterations, perhaps representing the significant changes to the industry in recent months.

“In 2019, mobile innovation is stronger than ever, with new technologies from 5G to edge to edge displays and even foldable screens,” said Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android. “Android is right at the centre of this innovation cycle, and thanks to the broad ecosystem of partners across billions of devices, Android’s helping push the boundaries of hardware and software bringing new experiences and capabilities to users.”

Privacy updates, gaming enhancements, features to accommodate for new connectivity requirements and addressing the foldable phone phenomenon, there is plenty for developers to consider this year.

Privacy as a product

New demands are being placed on developers around the world when it comes to privacy, but in truth, they have no-one to blame for the extra work than themselves.

This is not to say all developers have abused the trust of the consumer, but numerous scandals over the last 18 months and the opaque manner in which society was educated on the data-sharing machine has created a backlash. Privacy demands have been heightened through regulation and consumer expectations, meaning these elements are slowly becoming a factor in the purchasing process.

There are numerous privacy and security updates here which suggests Google has appreciated the importance of privacy to the consumer. Privacy could soon become a selling point, and Google is on hand with many of the updates based on its Project Strobe initiative.

Perhaps one of the most important updates here is more granular control of the permissions for individual apps. Users will not only have more control on what data is shared with which apps, but developers can no-longer request for consent for a catch-all data hoovering plan, while Google is also cracking down on un-necessary permissions. The team is updating its User Data Policy for the consumer Gmail API to ensure only apps directly enhancing email functionality have authorisation, while the same is being done for call functionality, call logs and SMS.

Data Privacy Survey

Source: GDMA: Global data privacy: What the consumer really thinks

Aside from the permissions updates noted above, users will also have more control over when apps can get location data. While some developers have abused the trust of users by collecting this data when irrelevant as to whether the app is open or not, users will now have the power to give apps permission to see their location never, only when the app is in use (running), or all the time.

There are other updates to the permissions side including audio collections, access to cameras and other media files. All of these updates represent one thing; privacy is a real issue and (theoretically) the power is being handed back to the consumer.

That said, Ovum’s Chief Analyst Ed Barton notes the critical importance of privacy features today, however, as Google could be considered one of the main contributors to the root problem, you must question how much trust the consumer actually has.

“It is noteworthy that privacy is something one might reasonably assume to have in most situations in modern life except in one’s digital life where the default expectation is that a vast digital platform knows more about you than your life partner and immediate family,” said Barton. “It is these circumstances which enables the concepts of privacy, personal data control and trust to be highlighted and used as marketing bullets.

“Privacy in something like an OS is meaningless unless you can trust the entity which made it so with Android Q the question, as always, is ‘how much do you trust Google’?”

Gaming enters the mainstream

Another major update to Android Q looks to target the increasingly popular segment of mobile gaming.

“Gaming remains one of the most popular genres on the app stores, while smartphones have allowed the industry to connect with the masses,” said Paolo Pescatore of PP Foresight.

“This has led to emergence of new games providers and a surge in casual and social gamers, while the arrival of 5G will open further opportunities for cloud based multiplayer games due to faster and more reliable connections and low latency. Mobile devices will be key in this new wave that also promises to bring virtual and physical worlds closer together providing users with immersive experiences.”

Capture

Source: KPMG: The Changing Landscape of Disruptive Technologies report

Here, there are two main updates which we would like to focus on. Firstly, Vulkan and ANGLE (Almost Native Graphics Layer Engine) to improve more immersive experiences. And secondly, improved connectivity APIs.

Starting with the graphics side, Android Q will add experimental support for ANGLE on top of Vulkan on Android devices to allow for high-performance OpenGL compatibility across implementations. The team is also continuing to expand the impact of Vulkan on Android, with the aim to make Vulkan on Android a broadly supported and consistent developer API for graphics.

In short, this means more options and greater depth when it comes to creating immersive experiences.

On the connectivity front, not only has Google refactored the wifi stack to improve privacy and performance, developers can request adaptive wifi in Android Q by enabling high performance and low latency modes. There are of course numerous usecases for low latency throughout the connectivity ecosystem, but from a consumer perspective, real-time gaming and active voice calls are two of the most prominent.

Gaming has slowly been accumulating more support and penetrating the mass market, and some of the features for Android Q will certainly help this blossoming segment.

Foldable phones; fad or forever?

Considering the euphoria which was drummed up in Mobile World Congress this year, it should hardly come as a surprise the latest edition of Android addresses the new demands of the products.

“To help your apps to take advantage of these and other large-screen devices, we’ve made a number of improvements in Android Q, including changes to onResume and onPause to support multi-resume and notify your app when it has focus,” the team said in the blog announcement.

There are of course a number of useful features which come with the increased real-estate, one of which is being able to run more than one app simultaneously without having to flick back and forth, as you can see from the image below.

Google Update

There are of course advantages to the new innovation, but you have to question whether there are enough benefits to outweigh the incredible cost of the devices. The power of smartphone and the astonishing tsunami of cash in the digital economy is only because of scale. With Samsung’s foldable device coming in at $1,980, and Huawei’s at $2,600, these are not devices which are applicable for scale.

Google is preparing itself should the foldable revolution take hold, but mass adoption is needed more than anything else. The price of these devices will have to come down for there to be any chance of these devices cracking the mainstream market, and considering recent trends suggesting the consumer is becoming more cash conscious, they will have to come down a lot.

The price might also impact the development of the subsequent ecosystem. Developers are under time constraints already, and therefore have to prioritise tasks. Without the scale of mainstream adoption, few developers will focus on the new form factor when creating applications and content. With little reward, what’s the point? Price will need to come down to ensure there is appetite for the supporting ecosystem to make any use of this innovation.

We’ve been complaining about a lack of innovation in the devices market for years, so it is a bit cruel to complain when genuine innovation does emerge, but a lot of work needs to be done to give foldable screens as much opportunity for widespread consumer adoption.